From DWM #416, and after taking on a Hartnell and a Pertwee, suddenly it was a Sladen. I had quite a lot of fun writing this one, mainly because I’d thought of the Tomorrow People angle beforehand, and that was enough to tip me into the rest of the review.
In an abandoned London Underground station lies a hi-tech lab… and nothing is happening.
There aren’t lava lamp shapes playing across the walls. No-one is jauntily teleporting in from a skirmish at a country house, where their sudden disappearance has resulted in a policeman falling into a lake. The lab screen isn’t displaying a message from a space emissary demanding intervention at the Planet of Boys-In-Their-Pants. Outside, there’s no alien invasion – fronted as some teen craze – sweeping Teddington Lock.
You see, the Tomorrow People aren’t needed any more. It’s taken 30 years to get here, but this box set confirms it. There’s a new off-beam, hormonal team defending the Earth, and they’re no saps. Homo superior better make way.
Granted, SJA is marketed as the Time Lord’s mini-me, but it owes a debt to The Tomorrow People, Thames TV’s barmy 1970s answer to Doctor Who. Like the school dodging TPs, Luke, Clyde, Rani and Maria live in a world where Mum and Dad are ancillary characters, authority figures so fatally lack in a sense of humour as to be laughable, while baddies like Sontaran puffball Kaagh come a cropper because they don’t twig what’s self-evident: Kids rule okay.
Still not with me? Let’s play snap. Stentorian master of ceremonies John? Meet sometimes spiky Sarah Jane Smith. The TP’s secret hi-tech lab? SJ’s secret hi-tech attic! And as for over-sized biological super computer TIM…
All of this – need I say it – is a good thing. The Tomorrow People has been described as “sci-fi with the brakes off”. Similarly, SJA is bright, lively, imaginative, sometimes daft and gloriously freewheeling.
All of that’s obvious in season opener The Last Sontaran, which sees Sarah Jane and the gang at their most archetypal. They know their roles and in some ways are a little too able. “Strange lights in the sky, a creepy sounding village and a radio telescope…” oh yes, we know this one. Clyde, in particular, is gifted with a fatal wit and wisecracks at Kaagh’s expense (“Hey Bilbo!”) mortally wounding the enemy.
Much of the two-parter is plain fun (they even let Kaagh go at the end, he’s so rubbish), but – and here’s where the show differs from The Tomorrow People – there’s also proper drama going on.
When Maria tells Sarah Jane she’s leaving, it’s our heroine who seems remote. “People always move on”, she says bitterly, shutting off from her friend. In this moment SJ is alien, even unlikeable. Brilliantly, it also evokes a long life of loneliness. Sarah Jane is a rare older role model in our Logan’s Run era of tyro television personalities, but while there’s magic in the notion of a materteral character – who possesses a childlike belief in the unbelievable but also enjoys the independence and resources of adulthood – she’s also someone who’s truly lived.
The Day of the Clown ushers in Maria’s replacement, Rani, and she’s demonstrably equipped to take up the vacancy. Sensing a mystery, she’s given a horribly overworked line, dodging brand names like a Blue Peter make: “Maybe you can ignore it with your MP3 players or your designer trainers, but I can’t!” Thankfully, actress Anjli Mohindra transcends the material and Rani – although crafted to do so – easily charms her way in.
Meanwhile, this tale is becoming genuinely disturbing. One-man circus troupe Bradley Walsh plays Elijah Spellman/The Pied Piper/Odd Bob with a horrible combination of glassy-eyed dispassion and lip-smacking lasciviousness. The latter describes himself as “the clown who snatches children in the heartbeat their mother’s back is turned”. When he then lays out his plan to “chill the blood of a nation”, you can’t help feel that’s a note from Phil Ford’s original story outline slipped into the script.
Again, it’s Clyde’s sense of humour that neuters the threat. This time what plays like a reading from Oh No! Not Another 1,000 Jokes for Kids (by former Cyber Controller Michael Kilgarriff, natch) doesn’t convince onscreen, and our young hero makes the tactical error of identifying himself as the show’s comic relief. No-one likes Scrappy Doo.
In Secrets of the Stars, we’re firmly back in Tomorrow People territory – an under-resourced baddy (Martin Trueman with only sidekick Cheryl on hand to tackle the admin) enslaving the populace via a craze for astrology. Russ Abbot’s performance as Trueman is a bit of a madhouse. When we catch glimpses of the real man (“I’m a fraud… there’s no power in the stars”) his shoe-shuffling vulnerability is affecting, but as the amped up Trueman he gives it maximum power, rating ‘11’ on the Servalan Scale (“I can channel the power of the STAAARRRS!!”).
A shame, because this destabilising performance detracts from an inventive script, packed with deft touches. My favourite? Sarah Jane rushes into her attic: “Mr Smith, I need…” but deflates when she finds the computer already unhatched. Another? What initially appears as a stock cliff-hanger resolution – Clyde snapped out of his trance by an appeal to his inner goodness – is later revealed as anything but.
Thankfully, the stars align for The Mark of the Berserker. In terms of plot, it’s the lightest of the run – Clyde’s estranged dad returns, is bewitched by an alien pendant, but gives it up thanks to, yep, an appeal to his inner goodness. It’s also light on Sarah Jane, who’s mostly out of the way hunting some new kind of NHS super-bug (a three-eyed space-slug) in an unnamed hospital.
This is Daniel Anthony’s story and he’s gifted superb lines: “By the way, Dad, I’m not 16, I’m 15.” Ultimately he proves Clyde Langer is much more than “the joker in the pack” and his final scene with Elisabeth Sladen is beautiful. Simply written and played, it lays out his vulnerability without diminishing him. “If it wasn’t for you lot,” he says, “I’d be weaker…”
The parenting theme continues in The Temptation of Sarah Jane Smith. A sequel to series one’s Whatever Happened to Sarah Jane? it’s not as conceptually challenging, but it’s heroically elegiac for something airing before Newsround. Plus, there’s a lot to be said for educating younger viewers in the extraordinary fact Sarah Jane actually had parents. It makes her relatable in a whole new way.
Sladen attacks the material with conviction, voice breaking as she wrestles with the notion of travelling in time to do a “Father’s Day” and prevent her parents’ death. Yes, the dialogue ladles it on – “We’ll always be there for you” say Sarah Jane’s mum and dad, not so much tempting fate as giving it a wedgie – but you can’t deny the stark bravery of ending this tale on the note that, while SJ’s adventures may be joyous, they can also bring “the worst things in the world.”
Not the worst things in the world, but a lot of dodgy elements coalesce for the finale. It’s proper that, in order to get itself some serious coverage in the mainstream press, The Sarah Jane Adventures offers up the odd stunt episode, but recalling the Brigadier, plus Kaagh, the Bane and Mrs Wormword results in an unwieldy and rather demented coda.
Kaagh does best out of the deal… mainly because he doesn’t have much to live up to, and suits the role of slack-brained heavy. If ever there was a Sontaran who should have been played by the late Derek Deadman, this is it. Samantha Bond, meanwhile, has a ball as Wormwood, enjoying ridiculous lines such as “I despise flowers!”, but she fast becomes a post-it note version of herself, evil for evil’s sake and cooing over Luke in a way that feels disturbingly more than maternal.
With all these familial associations, it’s unsurprising the Brig is treated like Granddad. Nicholas Courtney is great barking out stuff about “space thuggery” and still sparkles in scenes with Elisabeth Sladen (he now refers to Sarah Jane by her Christian name – a warming touch) but he’s treated with kid gloves throughout. When Mrs W renders our heroes unconscious, the gang all hit the floor, except for our old soldier who pops himself down in a comfy chair.
Granted, Courtney isn’t as young as he was, but the Brig remains at his best when people are shooting at him. As it stands, our last vision of him is Sarah Jane fussily tidying his lapels while a car rolls up to take him home. This can’t be how it ends.
So where next for SJA? Well, the immediate answer has just aired twice-weekly on BBC One. Now they’ve bagged the biggest catch of all – the Doctor – it’s hard to think what stunt is left. The Daleks are unlikely to have business at Bloomin’ Lovely (“MY DELPHINIUM IS IMPARED! IT CANNOT SEED!”) nor, God help us, the Master at Park Vale High (“Nothing can stop the General Collapse of Secondary Education!”). But here’s an idea. Maybe, just maybe, the next meteor can land some eight miles south of Ealing, rousing a cider-soused tinker as it crashes to Earth, who vows to give up the grog there and then. Meanwhile, a bobby on his bike careers into the Lock as a band of stack-booted super kids teleport in to investigate…
As per the series one box set, it’s thin stuff. If you thrilled at episode synopses last time, rejoice. Notes on both series one and two can be prized out of a file in that CG rendition of Sarah Jane’s attic. Photos, slight video diaries, the cinema trailer, plus perfunctory biogs are also available.
In ‘apropos of nothing’ territory, there’s a video montage of the 10 Doctors set to the strains of the 1970s theme. When it culminates in the caption: ‘Dr Who – Ten times better than anything else in the universe’ you may agree with the sentiment… but ‘Dr Who’? The old music? Summon the brand manager!
Elsewhere, a brief Blue Peter sequence sees Daniel Anthony, Tommy Knight and Anjili Mohindra join the presenters in their seemingly chalet-inspired basement to compete in a quiz. First prize is getting to feed lion cub Zara. Take a quiz on the DVD and there’s an equally nourishing reward – a chance to see the SJA Red Nose Day special featuring Ronnie Corbett. A good night from him, guaranteed.